Friday, April 24, 2009

Weekend Matinee: The Nigel Kneale Tapes

I've spent my entire life obsessed with science fiction, but not in the ways some might expect. I don't sit and pore over blueprints of the various Enterprises, or spend all my time on message boards, nitpicking the ouevre of Joss Whedon. But I do spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing on the ideas that sci-fi plays with- not an uncommon condition these days.

Anyway, sci-fi is an overly broad term that incorporates space opera, hard sci-fi, sci-fi fantasy, speculative fiction (which I'd classify The X-Files as) and certainly superhero fiction, which in many ways is the apotheosis of the sci-fi aesthetic. In the late 80s, cyberpunk sci-fi (particularly the work of William Gibson) shook my worldview to its foundations and the aftershocks of that continue to this day.

Sci-fi is poorly understood, and a lot of that is the fault of the vocal, visual minority of fans who treat the medium as escapist fetish literature, and not as a medium for the exploration of concepts lying at the core of human existence. I think we're all indebted to Battlestar Galactica for changing the conversation about sci-fi in the mainstream press, back to the consensus that had developed around the genre in the 60s and 70s. Even though it's loaded with subtext and deeper meaning, the theme-park appeal of the Star Wars films set that process back. In some ways we're just recovering from the effect it and its imitators had on an entire generation.

And then there is Nigel Kneale, a sci-fi writer who is generally recognized as one of the most important British screenwriters, and perhaps one of the most important television writers ever. Kneale approached the genre the way all its best writers have, as a way to explore the frontiers of the human condition. I'd been familiar with his work since I was a kid, but it wasn't until I was able to see his original teleplays online that I really got it.

We may well be in a fragile pocket of time, and this understanding of sci-fi as real, functional mythology could probably get pretty stupid once the eternally-ravenous media beasties swoop in and start spewing their know-it-all arrogance all over the topic. But before that happens, it's important to investigate information like this excellent documentary on Kneale. I know that regular readers of this blog will eat it up, recognizing many of the same issues that get knocked around in the Synchrosphere being broadcast into the living rooms of hardscrabble, post-war Britain.

One of those issues is Intervention Theory or AAT or whatever you want to call it. Kneale joins Chris Carter, Jack Kirby, George Lucas and Stanley Kubrick in their unapologetic exploration of this forbidden topic, which really is one of the last taboos of our allegedly-enlightened times. What makes this disreputable theory so attractive to these brilliant, accomplished men? Maybe when you spend so much time exploring the human condition you become acutely aware of the improbability of it all, as well as the basic, immutable reality of human maladaptivity to its supposed native environment....

Loren Coleman is also a major Kneale fan- read his eulogy for the writer here.